Onions!

A note to the wise: this blog post is not about onions, or ordering food, or even any food at all. When I think of onions, I think of the classic exclamation from CBS college basketball announcer Bill Raftery when someone hits a clutch shot. It doesn’t make sense, but then again, neither does basketball sometimes, so the absurdity fits. If someone hits a really amazing shot, Raftery can be known to emphasize how amazing it is by exclaiming, “Onions! Double order!” It still doesn’t make sense, but again, it fits. And this month, I had one of those “Onions! Double Order!” March Madness moments, right here in Perlis, Malaysia.

In my previous blog, the second in my series about starting life in rural Malaysia, I mentioned that I had started to coach the girls’ basketball team at my school, because the girls were getting humiliated game after game. I walked into my coaching job rather haphazardly: I was at breakfast with some of the English teachers one day, when they mentioned to me that there was a basketball game that afternoon, and that I should come and watch. I was drawn to watching our boys, since they were state champions and promised to play a good game. In true Malaysian fashion, I quickly received consultations from three different teachers to explain where exactly this game was taking place, one of which included an intricate diagram about how to make the 30-minute drive from our school to the court using the McDonald’s as a landmark. When I got to the court, our team didn’t disappoint. They won by a comfortable margin of 38-0, and really, the game was more lopsided than the score suggested. However, for as good as our boys’ team was, our girls’ team was very disappointing. They lost handily, 22-4. After the game, I was talking with one of the teacher sponsors for the basketball team, who told me that the girls’ team lacked a coach, and though they had requested one, none of the coaches felt comfortable coaching with girls. Soon after, I found myself surrounded by three girls from the team asking if I would coach. Of course, I said yes.

Though I’d agreed to be their coach, I realized that we never set a time to actually practice—I showed up one day later that week at the basketball court near the school, but only a few girls were there and we couldn’t hold a practice before the next game. This time, at least, I was able to stand by the bench and share some coaching tips with the help of a few of the teachers. It didn’t help much, though: the girls lost 26-1. After the game, I was approached again to coach the team, but unlike the first time we were actually able to set a time to practice: that evening. I rushed from the court to The Store (the name of the closest supermarket to me, I kid you not) to find a whistle and a new basketball, changed into basketball clothes, and drove up to the basketball court near my school for practice.

I was delighted to see the whistle give me a newfound authority over students—within a couple minutes I had them doing layup and passing drills. A few of my fellow teachers came over to the court before long–some to help translate, some to amusedly observe—and slowly, steadily I started to teach basic rebounding skills and defensive principles. Our team huddles was like something out of a brochure on Malaysia’s linguistic diversity: I would explain what I could about, for example, shooting free throws in English, then wait for my fellow English teacher, an Indian whose first language is Tamil, to translate my English phrases into Malay for the students. But of course, the students’ first language is Mandarin, and so we would sometimes bring in another teacher to repeat the phrasing in Mandarin. And none of the translators knew anything about basketball, which also meant that I had to explain basketball jargon like “box out” and “zone defense” across three languages. I used a lot of miming and diagrams. Surely, some of the finer points were lost, but at the end of three days I’d managed to teach a basic offensive scheme and defensive positioning.

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Me and one of the English teachers coaching the team.

At the next game, their final one, I wasn’t expecting much improvement—after all, three days of practice can only help so much. My fears were confirmed when the opposing team scored in the first thirty seconds, but our team fought back and took a commanding 9-6 lead into halftime (it was not a very high-scoring game). Midway through the second half, though, the girls started to get tired and started giving up easy baskets. I used my only timeout to give them a breather, but it was of little use: the other team tied the game at 13-13 with two minutes to play. Then, with just 27 seconds left, one of our players got fouled on a shot, giving her two free throws that, given the lack of offensive skill on both teams, would have all but sealed the win. She missed the rim on both attempts.

In the ensuing scramble, our team managed several shots and missed all of them; eventually, they gave the other team a throw-in with 9 seconds left. I screamed at my players to run back and play defense, think that we would simply prevent an easy shot and try and win the game in overtime. My players rushed to the other side of the court, while the opposing team rushed to get a final shot off before the buzzer. With a couple seconds left, they made it to the three-point line, passed, and launched a desperation 3-pointer. As I watched the ball fly through the air, I thought back through the game: neither team had made a shot from half the distance from which she was shooting, so there was just no way the opposing player’s shot would actually go in the hoop. But that’s exactly what it did: the swish of the ball going through the net coincided perfectly with the buzzer sounding. Onions, double order. Cue the other team starting a dogpile and me nearly falling on the ground in disbelief.

I’ve been a part of hundreds of rec games like this, and I don’t ever remember seeing a buzzer-beating shot like that. The circumstances are just so improbable. First, you have to get two teams that are evenly matched and have the game unfold such that the teams are separated by just a possession. Then, you have to time it just right so that the shot goes up with less than two seconds left on the clock, which almost never happens. And then, after all that, the shot has to go in, a feat that requires a player who has not an insignificant amount of both skill, nerves, and luck. In college and in professional leagues, with evenly-matched teams and clutch players that can hit shots from anywhere, that cocktail of factors can combine to produce a last-second winner once in a blue moon. In rec leagues, it’s basically near impossible. And yet, there I was, witnessing the most dramatic ending to a game I’d been a part of, and wishing that it had never happened.

Together with the other teachers, gathered our stunned players and walked off the court to debrief. I was pretty crestfallen, but I was surprised to see three or four of my girls look up at me with tears in their eyes. I guess it’s never good when your students cry, but I was really pleased to see how much the students had invested in our team. They really wanted our team to win, and more importantly, they had believed that we could win, which is a lot more than you could say about the previous two games. Part of what I love most about sports is that, once you get good enough to compete evenly with other teams, you open yourself to heartbreak and unbridled joy.  You become emotionally vulnerable in a way that you’re not when you lose by 20 every game, and that vulnerability can be really powerful. The girls promised that we would start practicing once a week after the March break, and come back next year ready to win the whole tournament.

I tried telling this story to teachers at the school the next day, and was surprised to get little more than a lukewarm response from anyone. After all, it was one of the most exciting, improbable endings I’d ever been a part of, and our team had improved so much from the week before! But my teachers don’t care much for basketball; rather, they care about the school winning championships. Malaysians value form over substance, as they say. And at the end of the day, my coaching wasn’t able to even produce a win for the school: it had no value for form. But I think the English teachers and me are starting a better, more serious culture around girls’ basketball—we’re laying the foundation for wins in the tournament next year. I told my girls that if we practiced hard, we might be able to win the championship like the boys’ team. It might be a stretch, but who knows, they could do it. That would be some real March Madness.

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Our boys’ team picture as state champions.
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